W.D. Snodgrass was a modern-day troubadour, with a lyric voice deeply influenced by his love of music. Of the generation that followed the major American figures of Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman and Robert Lowell, he enjoyed a prodigious early success, winning the Pulitzer prize for his first book of poems, Heart's Needle (1959).
But through a series of misfortunes, some circumstantial, some the result of bad artistic choices, Snodgrass managed to lose much of his audience in the course of his career. He never lost his gift, however, and his best work is almost certain to endure.
Snodgrass was, albeit inadvertently, the father of the confessional poetry that for a time dominated American verse. As a student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, his teacher Robert Lowell was initially repelled by the soul-searching intimacy of Snodgrass's poems, especially those about the break-up of his first marriage (there were four in all). "You can't write this kind of tear-jerking stuff," Lowell declared; but within two years he had turned volte face, writing that Snodgrass "was better than anyone except Larkin".
The free-flowing introspection of Lowell's Life Studies was undoubtedly influenced by the personal preoccupations of Snodgrass's early work (and arguably, through Lowell, the influence extended to Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman) but Snodgrass's early poems were formalist in technique, with traditional metres and often conventional rhyme; he only began to write some of his poems in freer verse forms in the 1960s.
Snodgrass is too good a poet to be just another footnote in American literary history. The voice of Heart's Needle is quite unique, its anguish over the separation from his daughter caused by his divorce kept barely in check by prosodic control:
Well, once again this April, we've
come around to the bears;
Punished and cared for, behind bars,
the coons on bread and water
stretch thin black fingers after ours.
And you are still my daughter.
The very best poems of the book, in fact, are not in the heart-rending title sequence. "April Inventory", for example, reflects Snodgrass's almost hopeless inability to strive for conventional success. He was qualified, really, only for a life teaching students of "creative writing", yet his lack of a doctorate, and an unwillingness to take seriously the po-faced pretensions of American academe meant that – before the success of Heart's Needle in particular – he struggled to hang on to any job for very long. Fired from Cornell in 1958, he later explained in an interview that he'd been told that: " 'There's a general feeling that you don't fit in.' And I must say I shared that feeling." As "April Inventory" tellingly begins:
The green catalpa tree has turned
All white; the cherry blooms once more.
In one whole year I haven't learned
A blessed thing they pay you for.
The blossoms snow down in my hair;
The trees and I will soon be bare.
A ropey love life also didn't help his prospects, since the breakdown of three marriages in succession made for continuous emotional upheaval. We sense personal experience in the adulterous lovers of "Leaving the Motel", who leave in their furtive rented room's vase
An aspirin to preserve
Our lilacs, the wayside flowers
We've gathered and must leave to serve
A few more hours;
That's all. We can't tell when
We'll come back, can't press claims;
We would no doubt have other rooms
Or other names
Snodgrass was born in Pennsylvania, the son of an accountant, and grew up in a Presbyterian household of the sort, he later joked, that hates sex "because it could lead to dancing." Family life was claustrophobically close, and conflicted, and this perhaps accounts for Snodgrass's lifelong psychological frailty and for his willingness to describe his own inner torment in an age when this simply wasn't done. As a boy, he was devoted to his mother, but she was domineering, a compulsive hoarder and neurotic; his father escaped her tyranny by having affairs. Snodgrass later blamed his mother for the early death of one of his sisters from an asthma attack, and his affection turned to animus as a grown man – in his 1970 book Remains, published under the obvious pseudonym S. S. Gardons, he wrote of his mother, "If evil did not exist, she would create it."
He was drawn early to music, and as a boy took violin lessons for over 10 years, saying later with a great belly laugh, "I was terrible ... How any of the neighbours stood it I don't know." Equally bad at the piano, he also played the timpani, and took conducting lessons, though in a post-war America with relatively few professional orchestras he soon realised that he would never make a living this way.
After starting at Geneva College in his Pennsylvania hometown, Snodgrass enlisted in the Navy at the end of the Second World War, and spent more than 18 months as a clerk and guard on Saipan in the Pacific. When he returned he transferred to the University of Iowa, where Paul Engle had established the Writer's Workshop, though initially Snodgrass went there to study playwriting.
His early poems were written very much in the styles of William Empson and the early Lowell, who was himself yet to be influenced by Snodgrass. Music was instrumental in shifting his poetry on to a more personal plain, in particular Mahler's "Songs on the Death of Children", and the singing of the Swiss tenor Hugues Cuénod, which made Snodgrass want to write poems with the same clarity and unselfconscious passion.
The Pulitzer prize brought Snodgrass temporary fame, more invitations to read, and longer teaching stints. He followed the book not only with his pseudonymous family poems, but with After Experience (1968). Its strong lyrics, still metrically formal, reinforced his reputation, but there were also poems about paintings (including a much-anthologised poem about Monet's "Les Nymphéas"), as well as many translations – an interest of Snodgrass's throughout his career.
Over the years Snodgrass had a peripatetic teaching career – including long stints at Wayne State, Syracuse, and the University of Delaware – while increasingly pursuing an intense but undoubtedly rarefied interest in medieval songs, publishing several pamphlets of translations with private presses, including Six Troubadour Songs and Six Minnesinger Songs. His passion for song even extended to singing lessons.
It was known that he was at work on a long cycle of poems, but it was not until 1977 that The Führer Bunker: A Cycle of Poems in Progress appeared – incomplete, but published because, in Snodgrass's words, "I had gone for a good many years without bringing out any kind of book."
A series of dramatic monologues (with the characters of Hitler, Eva Braun, Goebbels, and Himmler among others) set in the last days of the Third Reich, The Führer Bunker offended many readers, who found the humanising of inhuman figures unpalatable, even unacceptable. It seemed a perverse choice of topic for so many years' work, and in contrast to the vivid immediacy of his early poems, the cycle suffered from the inevitable staginess of monologues spoken by some of history's ghastliest real figures. Stubbornly, Snodgrass persevered with the cycle, even adding more Albert Speer monologues in later years when new information about Speer came to light. It was an obsession with a historical reality that even those sharing his fascination preferred to read about in non-fiction.
But there was something admirable in the insistent way in which Snodgrass remained his own man and his own writer. He wrote other new poems, and enjoyed some late revived success with the publication of his Selected Poems: 1957-1987 (1987) and Not for Specialists: New and Selected Poems (2006). A successor to the fabled generation of post-war poets and taught by its dominant trio of Lowell, Randall Jarrell, and Berryman, Snodgrass became a grand old man himself, but without the wider reputation of his predecessors. The lyric gift never disappeared, however, even as he seemed to say goodbye to it, as in his late poem "Packing up the Lute":
Go lie with lovenotes and snapshots. You
Were just too fine a vice to last.
Condemned to virtue, we thumb through
The evidence of our misspent past.
William DeWitt Snodgrass, poet and translator: born Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania 5 January 1926; married four times (one son, one daughter); died Erieville, New York 13 January 2009.